This project began out of desperation. When my three boys — ages 5, 9 and 11 — said it would be sad to see their Navy dad’s empty seat at the dinner table while he is away on a yearlong deployment, I set out to fill the void.
I called it “Dinner with the Smileys.”
“For each week that Dad is gone,” I told the boys, “we’ll invite a guest to fill his chair at the family table.”
We created a wish list of 52 guests — from friends, family and schoolteachers to musicians, authors and President Obama — and suddenly, a new dimension to the project was clear: Dinner with the Smileys will fill our weeks and mark the time until Dustin returns.
I bought a calendar to keep track of the dinners, and our excitement grew when we scheduled guests for May and June and realized we’d be halfway through the deployment by then.
Yet, the fullness of this project — what it could mean to us, and what it might mean to others — was still mostly unrecognized. Indeed, one month into Dinner with the Smileys, I’m only just beginning to appreciate its many layers.
Military spouses around the country have written to say that they’d like to do a “Smiley Project” of their own when their loved one deploys. I hope that they will. If our first four dinners are any indication, there is much to be gained — as a family and as a community.
Here are a few notes from our January dinners:
A sense of community
Each week, our special dinners offer my boys the chance to connect with people in the community in a way they never could have if not for the “family” table. Only when you’ve passed homemade lasagna to the mayor or when your minister has helped your 5-year-old butter his bread can you know these people in a way that goes beyond the small talk and pleasantries that usually fill our days.
Sen. Collins knows my boys’ names. She’s seen their fish tank and Lego creations. Lindell’s preschool teacher has met his older brothers and learned their personalities. The mayor played Wii with the boys and listened to stories about their dad. Our minister helped break up a brawl in the living room. He saw the boys’ rooms. Met their dog. Now he knows where we’re “coming from” on Sunday morning.
Learning to give back
Our mayor took the boys in a limo, courtesy of Thomas at Hollywood Custom Rides, to get 18 scoops of ice cream (Dysart’s famous “18 Wheeler”). He brought them hats and gifts from the Bangor airport (check out FlyBangor.com to see where we send Monty the Moose). And Dysart’s didn’t let the boys leave without T-shirts and a trip to see the ice cream machine.
At the end of the evening, one of my boys asked why people want to be so nice to us. It was an opportunity to tell them about Americans’ appreciation for the sacrifices of military families. All three boys were visibly proud to know that they are part of their dad’s service-to-country, too.
And then Ford said, “I think we should find someone to be nice to also.”
If the idea had not come from their own overflowing cup, I’m not sure the lesson would have stuck. (In February: Dinner with the Smileys hits the road to give back and help others.)
But there have been other intangible or almost imperceptible gifts as well: The minister’s talk about the importance of family. The way his wife listened intently to the boys’ stories. The preschool teacher’s handwritten, thoughtful note to Dustin. The senator’s time. The mayor’s baseball stories.
Soon, these gifts will overflow, too. And they will be repaid in a way — much as they were given — that no one really notices except in hindsight.
Anyone can do this
I know what you’re thinking: “Not everyone can do this, Sarah.”
Yes you can.
You don’t have to invite a senator or the mayor, but you can invite someone. Dinner time is the loneliest part of the day for people separated from their loved ones, either by military service or death. If houses and apartments were like dollhouses, with one side totally exposed, we’d see plenty of people eating alone to the sound of a television. All you have to do is extend an invitation.
“But, Sarah, my house is a mess, I don’t cook, and my children have really bad manners.”
Did I mention that my older boys had a true, rolling-on-the-ground fight when our minister was over for dinner? Or that I’m serving our guests things such as lasagna, chicken and boiled noodles and broccoli that was left on the stove too long?
There is nothing fancy or impressive about Dinner with the Smileys (well, except for that limo ride). Because it’s not about the food. Or the house. It’s about the opportunity to know each other better. And sometimes that can’t happen until one kid in a cloak has wielded his light saber against another kid in his Mario costume.
Wondering who’s coming next? Follow along at http://www.facebook.com/sarah.is.smiley where you’ll find pictures of past dinners and hints about who will be next.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at email@example.com.